When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro – Hunter S. Thompson, ‘Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl’ (Rolling Stone #155)
In his critical examination of Hunter S. Thompson’s literary output writer William Stephenson does something that I’m not entirely convinced that Thompson did himself: he takes Hunter S. Thompson seriously. That doesn’t mean he ignores the man’s flaws and weaknesses because they’re impossible to sidestep, but then neither does he dwell solely on the more sensational aspects of Thompson’s life. If you know nothing about this writer I might suggest this is not the best place to start reading about him. That is the position I found myself in when I accepted the review copy which is why I did, precisely because I knew nothing more of him than he was the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a book I had not read nor had I even seen the film adaptation. I read about two-thirds of the opening chapter of Gonzo Republic, realised nothing was going in, so I put the book aside and decided to see if I could find something visual, a TV documentary or something along that line, to get an overview of the man before proceeding further. I ended up watching two, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2009) and the slightly morbid and intrusive Hunter S. Thompson – Final 24: His Final Hours (2006) both of which are discussed in the first of the book’s appendices. Needless to say there was a lot of overlap. Then I found three books, all fiction: The Rum Diary, an early novel dating from the sixties, an attempt to write ‘the Great Puerto Rican Novel’; 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, the pedestal on which his reputation sits and Screw-Jack & Other Stories, a collection of three short stories first published in 1991. I didn’t have time to read everything, cover to cover, but I read enough to get a taste of him. Better equipped I returned to Stephenson’s book.
Just as KFC will always be identified with the catch phrase "Finger lickin' good" whenever you hear either the word ‘gonzo’ or the expression ‘fear and loathing’ it’s impossible, even if you don’t really understand the expressions in the context in which they are used, not to associate these with Thompson. Stephenson does his best to explain the origins of each. First, ‘fear and loathing’:
Writing on 22 November 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination, Thompson used the phrase ‘fear and loathing’ for the first time, as a description of his gut reaction to the murder. He perhaps borrowed it unconsciously from Søren Kierkegaard’s nineteenth-century existentialist interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac, Fear and Trembling. Thompson later denied the connection with Kierkegaard: the phrase ‘came straight out of what I felt […] I just remember thinking about Kennedy, that this is so bad I needed new words for it.’ Douglas Brinkley states that Thompson’s source for the phrase ‘fear and loathing’ was Thomas Wolfe’s novel The Web and the Rock, published posthumously in 1939. The Web and the Rock’s protagonist, George Webber, is appalled by the squalor of his own background: ‘Drowning! Drowning! Not to be endured! The abominable memory shrivels, shrinks and withers up his heart in the cold constriction of its fear and loathing.’
Whatever the origins of the phrase Thompson made it his own and incorporated it in titles a number of times: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72; ‘Fear and Loathing in Elko’, a short story that appeared in Rolling Stone #622; Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, a collection of his letters; ‘Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl’ in Rolling Stone #28 and ‘Fear and Loathing in Limbo: The Scum Also Rises’, an article from Rolling Stone #171. I think the best definition has to go to Stephen King:
The horror writer Stephen King took Thompson’s slogan as a synonym for terror, an emotion that ‘arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking.” The phrase had political as well as personal connotations. It meant ‘a dread of both interior demons and the psychic landscape of the nation around him’ that enabled Thompson to articulate ‘the mind-set of a generation that had held high ideals and was now crashing hard against the walls of American reality.’
One can over-romanticise the effect that the assassination of Kennedy had on people and say it was the day the American dream died. I was too young to pay it any heed. I was more interested in a new TV show called Dr Who.[*]
‘Gonzo’—specifically ‘gonzo journalism’—is not an expression coined by Thompson but it is one that he co-opted and redefined. Again Stephenson admits that “no consensus has ever been reached over the definition of the term,” however, the first time it was used was in a similar manner to the way ‘Impressionism’ was first used—as a slightly derogatory term coined by the critic Louis Leroy.
It was first applied to Thompson’s writing in 1970 by his friend Bill Cardoso, editor of the Boston Globe, who had read ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’ and called it “totally gonzo.” […] Gonzo is said to stem from ‘an Americanisation of [the Spanish] ganso “gander; lazy, slovenly person, dunce.’”
There are some similarities. The Impressionists turned their back on the style that was in vogue at the time. Colour was sombre and reserved, and the traces of brush strokes were suppressed, concealing the artist's personality, emotions, and working techniques. And that’s how journalism had been, objective, serious, structured and trustworthy adhering to “the five Ws (who, what, when, where and why) in the lead paragraph, followed by paragraphs of diminishing significance, so that even a casual reader can quickly gain a sense of the story.” But that all changed in 1970 when Thompson was commissioned to write a piece for Scanlan's Monthly in June of that year.
Due to deadline pressure, Thompson had created the central 18-paragraph section … by sending unedited pages of his notebook to the magazine. He had expected to be castigated for such unprofessional sloppiness and thought he had fatally harmed his career as a journalist. However, to his overjoyed astonishment, readers were excited by what they saw as a fresh approach to satire. Thompson remarked gleefully, ‘It was like falling down and elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.’
With typical astuteness, Thompson turned serendipity into strategy. He immediately began to promote Gonzo as a term to legitimise it as a technique. In the jacket copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he cited as a precedent William Faulkner’s claim that ‘the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this.’
Gonzo [came to suggest] the capering of the holy fool, exposing the shortcomings of the society around him even as he flouted its rules of acceptable behaviour, either through the lowering of inhibitions brought on by drink and drugs, or just through not caring. Gonzo was born of spontaneous outrage, fuelled by chemicals and manifested in a decentred, broken-down prose of loose grammar and scattergun syntax, holed by ellipses and fractured by sudden jumps in perspective or subject matter.
This is how Webster’s Dictionary defines the term:
- With total commitment, total concentration, and a mad sort of panache (Thompson’s original sense)
- More loosely: Overwhelming; outrageous; over the top
The Internet abounds of debate concerning the word’s etymology and current definition. Suffice to say, once Thompson realised he had stumbled onto something that the public would respond to he set out to capitalise on it, to define it first of all and then to encapsulate it. Eventually he became an act he himself couldn’t follow.
Scientists discover things by accident all the time (e.g. penicillin). The trick is to be able to replicate that fortunate happenstance and that’s what Thompson set out to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He was commissioned “to write 250 words about the Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated.” That’s not what he turned in:
Thompson exceeded his word count: hugely, chaotically and brilliantly. He knew he had written a Gonzo epic that deserved to be promoted with outrageous panache, and he worked assiduously to build a myth around it.
[And yet] Thompson believed that Vegas was a “failed experiment” according to the strict standards of Gonzo that he had set himself; he was disappointed that the novel had not been composed spontaneously and published unedited in the manner of the Kentucky Derby article, as he had intended at first. Instead, he worked on Vegas painstakingly over five drafts, ensuring that not a single unnecessary word went in.
One has to wonder how Thompson got to this point in his life and that’s where Stephenson’s book falls short if you’re looking for a biography of Thompson because that it is not. There is, of course, some biographical data, especially in the opening chapter which serves to give the reader an overview of his life and the history that he lived through; the personal—e.g. the loss of his father when he was only fourteen, his alcohol and drug dependency and his obsession with firearms; the political—the death of Kennedy, Thompson’s unsuccessful attempt to become Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado (which he documented in the Rolling Stone article ‘The Battle of Aspen’), the devastating effect a race riot in Chicago had on him (reducing him to tears) and his life-long antipathy with Nixon; and the literary landscape—he grew up in an America where Kesey (a writer he greatly admired), Burroughs (who shared his fascination with all thing pharmaceutical and gun-related) and Kerouac (whose stream-of-consciousness writing in On the Road was a major source of inspiration) were all writers of some profile even though he himself became more associated with the New Journalists like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese than the Beats. I was a little surprised to see no references to Bukowski since both authors write semi-autobiographically and heavily under the influence. Quoting from Hell’s Angels : The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Thompson’s first major success before he lost himself to all things gonzo, Stephenson notes that “Thompson’s characters are often ‘losers—dropouts, failures and malcontents’; they are social rejects not only because of their refusal to conform, but also because of their inadequacy” and you could say much the same of Bukowski’s characters and literary alter egos.
No, this book focuses on the writing and Stephenson has no problems referencing Kafka, Huxley, Beckett, Mark Twain, Proust, Said, Rand, Shakespeare, Melville, Fitzgerald, Wordsworth, Céline, Conrad, Eliot, Borges or even Plato to make his points plus a great many contemporary references from Dylan to The Beatles. For example he lists Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ literary antecedents as On the Road, The Great Gatsby, Don Quixote, Moby-Dick and Waiting for Godot.
Duke and Gonzo’s mission is pointless. They are seeking an illusion, just like Don Quixote, whose horse Rozinante is replaced here by cars, the Great Red Shark and the White Whale (itself an illusion to Melville). They appear exhausted, beat. They are condemned to exchange useless badinage, like an acid-addled update of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. Duke’s initial explanation of their quest, as given to Gonzo in Los Angeles, relies on the ‘faux-naïve, self-mocking Gatsby motif’ as captured in Duke’s parody of insouciant Jazz Age banter: “I tell you, my man, this is the American Dream in action!’
Another writer I was a little surprised not to see mentioned is Truman Capote whose book, In Cold Blood was published in 1965 two years before Thompson wrote Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Capote is known for developing New Journalism, a style of writing that was a cross between journalism and literature, and many consider the epitome of this genre to be Capote's ground-breaking work of non-fiction, In Cold Blood, published in 1965 and considered the first "so-called news novel." Mailer is cited as an influence—and Mailer and Capote are as different as they are similar—but perhaps it was Capote’s homosexuality that biased Thompson. The subject is only mentioned briefly well into the book but it leaves no scope for doubt:
Thompson himself had committed violent homophobic acts in Big Sur in the early 1960s. In a letter, he claimed that these contributed to his dismissal from the community: ‘I am to be evicted for splitting a queer’s head with that billy club.’ When he discovered that the nearby swimming pool, of which he was caretaker, was a gathering place for gay men, Thompson would drive them away with his gun.
This was a different time though and his homophobia needs to be placed in context; “the world that Duke projects in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is strictly male-dominated and misogynistic” and this clearly reflects the author’s own feelings on the subject. His first wife, Sandy, recalls: “I had no life […] My whole world revolved around Hunter.”
It was Sandy who had kept Thompson afloat in San Francisco by working a series of short-term, poorly paid jobs. In the lodge, a domestic space, Thompson demanded a woman at the hearth to provide security, whereas the edge was an all-male zone of danger and excitement.
I find I can’t relate to him. I don’t understand him. In 1990 he wrote this to William McKeen:
I haven’t found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing, trying to imagine a story no matter how bizarre it is.
Although my knowledge of pharmaceuticals is limited to prescription medication and over-the-counter drugs and I haven’t touched alcohol in years I still find myself nodding when I read that. Unlike me Thompson wanted to be a writer from a young age and he would literally type out pages of Hemingway and Fitzgerald to get a feel for the rhythm of the words. I never did that but I can understand him doing it just like I can understand Joyce Carol Oates writing novels by hand and then tossing them in the bin. But I don’t get the Gonzo mentality despite Stephenson’s efforts to help me understand it. Deadlines cause me to panic and yet Thompson admitted:
I don’t say this with any pride, but I really couldn’t imagine writing without a desperate deadline.
This was evidenced with the follow-up to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 where his editor had to basically lock him in a room and sit with him while he finished the task in hand, not that he’s the first writer that’s happened to; Douglas Adams inevitably springs to mind along with Harold Robbins.
Needless to say a lifetime’s worth of excess took its toll on Thompson’s body and his writing and basically after Campaign Trail, which he wrote when he was about thirty-six, his work began to circle the drain. As Stephenson acknowledges:
One commonly held view of Thompson is that he peaked in the early seventies with the two Fear and Loathing books and was in personal and literary decline ever since; a slow slide induced not only by the limitations of his Gonzo style and persona, but also by the staleness of repetition and the cumulative effects of his Olympian booze and drug intake. Although Thompson contributed more material to Rolling Stone in the early 1990s than he had since 1976, ‘most of it was seen as lower-level self-imitation.’
He committed suicide at his home on 20th February 2005. He was sixty-seven, in poor health and in a lot of physical pain. This was what he wrote in his suicide note:
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun -- for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax -- This won't hurt.
At the top of the note, scribbled in black magic marker were the words, "Football Season Is Over." He had been talking about it for a long time. At the end of the day it came as no great surprise.
On the whole I enjoyed this book. The blurb on the publisher’s website says: The first academic book on Thompson in twenty years, designed for both students and scholars. I would agree. The language used is accessible and the book is sensibly structured—as you read through chapter one, for example, he points you to upcoming chapters where things will be discussed in more depth—and, at 157 pages (not counting index and appendices), not exactly a long read but I still wouldn’t call it an easy read and a chapter a day will be more than enough for most people. If you have read and enjoyed his work and want to dig down a level then this book is the one for you. If you want to learn about the man, though, I would recommend a decent biography—Stephenson kindly lists several in a footnote but chooses only to recommend one: “William McKeen’s thoughtful and well researched Outlaw Journalist: The Life & Times of Hunter S. Thompson.” I don’t think you want to jump into this book if you’ve never read any Thompson but I don’t think that was ever the intended market.
The one thing that did puzzle me was: Why Thompson? By that I mean why would a very English English lecturer choose Hunter S. Thompson as a subject for research. So I asked:
I'd done some work on Irvine Welsh and William Golding that touched on opiate abuse and had been teaching a module on Literature and Addiction (from Thomas de Quincey to Irvine Welsh); Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was on the syllabus and my students on the module pointed out that there wasn't much available on Thompson that was recent apart from biographies, so I thought it would be worthwhile and interesting to remedy this; so I'd actually been building up material on Thompson for a while, from my work on him as a teacher. Ironically, the module is no longer running, but Thompson is widely taught across the world in courses on postmodern lit and journalism so there is still a market for the book, I hope.
So there you go. I was hoping for something a little more passionate but that doesn’t take away from the hard work done here. The blog post he wrote for his publisher is a bit more enlightening: Hunter S Thompson's explosive writing: an author guest post by William Stephenson.
You can read the first chapter here.
Dr William Stephenson is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Chester, where he teaches modernist and postmodernist literature. His main research interests include science fiction, dystopian fiction, queer theory, Hunter S. Thompson, John Fowles and David Mitchell (the novelist, not the comedian). His publications include Writers and Their Work: John Fowles and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman plus several book chapters and articles in journals including Critique, Journal of Cultural Research and a/b: Auto/Biography Studies.
[*] ‘An Unearthly Child’, the first episode of the very first serial, was transmitted at 5.15 pm on 23 November 1963, but due to both a power failure in certain areas of the country and the overshadowing news of US President John F. Kennedy's assassination, it drew minimal comment and was repeated the following week immediately before the second episode.